The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

The GOP School of Media Relations

Posted on | July 31, 2012 | 44 Comments

Pioneered by Ron Ziegler during the Nixon Administration, the Republican Party policy of contemptuous mistreatment of the press corps produces yet another predictable “success” :

WARSAW — A Mitt Romney aide told reporters to “shove it” Tuesday morning after the American press corps here shouted questions at the presidential candidate.
As Romney was walking away from Pilsudski Square toward his vehicle, reporters asked him about his string of gaffes and whether he had any comment for Palestinians, some of whom took offense at the Republican’s suggestion Monday in Jerusalem that Israel’s economy is superior because of cultural advantages Israelis enjoy. Romney ignored the questions and got in his car.
But his traveling press secretary was furious.
“Kiss my ass; this is a holy site for the Polish people,” said aide Rick Gorka. “Show some respect.”
Gorka then told a reporter to “shove it.”

This Ziegler-style hostility toward reporters was something I experienced during the 2008 campaign. No publication on the planet had been more hostile to the Clintons than The American Spectator, yet when I showed up on the campaign trail to cover Hillary’s primary campaign, the reception I got was surprisingly cordial.

Twice I covered impromptu post-event “availabilities” (i.e., press conferences) with the candidate, including one in Shepherdstown, W.Va., where I sat in the front row less than 10 feet from Hillary while she took questions from a press corps that kept asking variations on the question, “When are you going to quit?”

When I subsequently went out on the trail to cover John McCain, by contrast, there were no press conferences, and when Sarah Palin was added to the ticket, she was kept within a protective “bubble.” In fact, McCain campaign staffers at times tried to cordon off reporters in a pen, so as to prevent them even from interviewing people attending campaign rallies.

This is what GOP operatives like to call “message discipline,” and it has the predictable effect of entirely alienating the press corps.

Suppose that you are a correspondent who is following around a candidate at considerable expense to your news organization. Your bosses expect that you’re going to provide them with actual news, and hopefully something exclusive. Instead, you go to three events a day at which the candidate gives the same basic stump speech over and over. There’s never a press conference, never a minute of unscripted access to the candidate, and the campaign staffers are under orders never to tell you anything useful in terms of actual news that might distract from the pre-approved Message of the Day.

Wouldn’t that piss you off? And especially if your editors had sent you all the way to Warsaw, Poland, for such a dog-and-pony show?

How many times have I explained to my friends — many of whom are in fact Republican operatives — why this approach doesn’t work? Hundreds. Yet the same Ziegler-style policy continues to be Standard Operating Procedure, because you will never meet a Republican operative who doesn’t consider himself an authoritative expert on media relations, and they will heed no advice from actual journalists.

UPDATE: In checking back on my 2008 campaign covered, I found my American Spectator article about Hillary’s appearance in Shepherdstown, which was the day after she’d lost North Carolina and barely squeaked past Obama in Indiana:

Hillary’s supporters cheered and chanted her name at the West Virginia event, but reporters pounced at a post-rally press conference, suggesting it might be time for her to strike the tent. Does her vow to keep fighting, asked one network TV reporter, mean that Clinton will continue her campaign all the way until the vote on the convention floor in Denver?
“I’m staying in this race until there’s a nominee, and I obviously am going to work as hard as I can to become that nominee,” she answered. “So we will continue to contest these elections and move forward.”
The reporter fired back with a follow-up question: “But what do you say to those Democrats who fear that you’re putting the Democratic Party’s chances at risk by…continuing to stay in?”
Such questions caused Rush Limbaugh (who claimed that his “Operation Chaos” delivered Hillary’s margin of victory in Indiana) to wonder why the “Drive-By Media” were so concerned with the Democratic Party’s chances in November.
“All of these media types are demanding that Hillary drop out of the race now . . . and the Drive-Bys are saying, ‘Get out of the race to save the party.’ Now, what’s the party got to do with the media? I ask rhetorically, of course,” Limbaugh told his listeners after watching TV coverage of the Shepherdstown press conference.

The reporter shouting hostile questions was Mark Knoller of CBS News, an obnoxious slob, the Michael Moore of the White House press corps. Knoller’s presumption of speaking on behalf of “those Democrats” was scarcely presumptuous, of course. And the fact that Hillary was willing to stand there in front of all those cameras and answer Knoller’s pushy questions was quite a contrast to the inherently defensive way the McCain campaign kept the press at arm’s length.

UPDATE II: Bill Quick insists that I’ve got it “bass-ackwards,” which is the typical response I get from my friends when I try to explain the GOP’s media-relations problem. The undeniable fact of liberal bias has become such a gigantic obstacle in the minds of Republicans that it induces a sort of mental paralysis, so that they are incapable of thinking of reporters as human beings, as individuals.

This was what infuriated me when Melissa Clouthier declared, “A journalist is a wild animal with an appetite for conservative meat and should be interacted with that way — always.”

Really? The entire press corps — including, inter alia, Byron York and Carl Cameron, to say nothing of myself — is to be condemned pre-emptively and categorically as sub-human monsters? Do you suppose that such a contemptuous attitude can be hidden? Or, if you give the “wild animals” of the press credit for having the intuition to detect that you despise their very existence, do you suppose that they will respond to your hostility by giving you better coverage than they otherwise would?

When I objected to Melissa’s all-encompassing condemnation of the newsman’s trade (“Conservatives Against Journalism,” June 26, 2010), this made me a villain. The fact that I’ve been in the news business since 1986 doesn’t qualify me as knowing anything about “media strategy.” My assertion to the contrary — and in contradiction to the Ron Ziegler approach to press relations that is standard thinking among Republicans — was viewed not only as a personal insult toward Melissa, but toward every Republican who shared her opinions.

Look: Reporters are human beings, and human beings respond to incentives. You are never going to encourage reporters to provide fair coverage if, in the carrot-and-stick calculus of incentives, they know they’re going to get the stick every time, no matter what they report. Neither are you going to be able to establish any kind of working relationship with people unless you (a) treat them as individuals, and (b) deal with them on a basis of honesty.

The campaign has a job: To get the candidate elected.

The press has a job: To cover the campaign.

Insofar as liberal bias makes this working relationship difficult for Republicans, it is because some reporters (wrongly and unfairly) view their job as making sure the Republican doesn’t get elected.

OK, so how about this? When the campaign perceives that certain reporters — as individuals — are blatantly engaged in hostile partisanship, they address their complaints in an informal setting toward the offending reporter in an honest and professional manner.

“Hey, c’mon, Mark, what’s with all the gotcha questions, huh? Are you working for CBS News or are you working for the Obama campaign?”

There are some reporters who are beyond shame in their biased attitudes, “having their conscience seared with a hot iron,” as it were. But I believe that some lingering sentiment of fairness — some tiny spark of humanity — probably still exists even in the depraved souls of such creatures as Mark Knoller. The alternative to such a belief would require us to abandon any hope that the pervasive wretchedness of the American press can ever be even mildly reformed, to surrender forever any effort at getting any actual truth from the media.

Call me a fool for believing that an optimistic attitude is better than the helpless passivity that pessimism inspires. As a great man once said, “It is history that teaches us to hope.”

UPDATE III: John Hinderaker takes note of the “hypercritical” nature of coverage of Romney’s foreign trip, and Romney himself has now weighed in on the subject of media bias:

Asked about his missteps in an interview with Fox News’ Carl Cameron before he left Poland on Tuesday, Romney accused reporters of trivializing the substance of his trip and trying to divert attention from President Obama’s stewardship of the economy.
“And I realize that there will be some in the Fourth Estate, or whichever estate, who are far more interested in finding something to write about that is unrelated to the economy, to geopolitics, to the threat of war, to the reality of conflict in Afghanistan today, to a nuclearization of Iran,” Romney said, according to a transcript of the interview that aired on Tuesday morning. “They’ll instead try and find anything else to divert from the fact that these last four years have been tough years for our country.”

This is both true and newsworthy. And an honest, direct, but not overtly hostile confrontation between Romney and those in the press corps who are actively engaged in attempting to sabotage his campaign is long overdue. Reporters are under no obligation to be absolutely neutral, but they are under an obligation to be honest.

Bob Dylan once said that, I think.

UPDATE IV: To attempt to bring this argument to some sort of conclusion — I’ve got some actual reporting to do today, and can’t dwell much longer on this — let me say that what bugs me about the Republican tendency to use media bias as an excuse for failure.

If media bias were really such an insuperable obstacle to GOP success, no Republican would ever be elected anywhere. Obviously, some Republicans are able to run effective campaigns and perhaps even occasionally garner press coverage that isn’t entirely negative.

By using media bias as an all-purpose scapegoat for Republican failure, GOP politicians and campaign operatives prevent anyone (including themselves) from asking whether Republicans themselves may be partly responsible for their hostile relations with the media.

It’s sort of like the embittered guy who, after a divorce, places all the blame for the breakup on his ex-wife. Then he re-marries, and that marriage also ends in divorce, and once again, to hear him tell the story, it’s all his ex-wife’s fault. So he’s 0-for-2, and wants you to believe that this is just bad luck: He coincidentally got stuck with two bad wives.

When you hear a woe-is-me story like that, isn’t your gut-hunch suspicion that maybe this guy has problems of his own? In fact, don’t you think that his insistence on placing the blame on his ex-wives is a symptom of that problem, namely his inability to accept responsibility for his own personal failures and shortcomings?

Therfore, when I see a candidate as wretched as the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, who employs in key positions such faithless backstabbers as Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace, and then I hear Republicans whining about media bias — no, I’m sorry, I ain’t buying that.

Blame the loser who lost the election.

 

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Comments

  • http://thecampofthesaints.org Bob Belvedere

    And, of course, we remember how successful Ron Ziegler was.

  • MWTexas

    I guess I can see the point of view of the reporters, but I think the questions were of the variety “When did you stop beating your wife?”

    And, it was CNN and NYT reporters asking questions that clearly have no newsworthiness about them. They were set-up questions and no matter what Romney said it would be reported negatively. These are not in the understood sense “journalists” these were propagandists. In my opinion, they didn’t ask good faith questions seeking a newsworthy asnwer. They asked questions that would allow them to create (not “report”) a negative story.

  • Librarygryffon

    I’ve read elsewhere that the “reporters” were screeching “questions” about Romney’s “gaffes”.  If that is the truth, I doubt I’d have the restraint this staffer did.  Though I might have tried wording it more politely.  

    If the press actually did their jobs and were objective, I’d be concerned about this, but no matter what Romney does, the press are going to be negative.  He could heal the lame and the blind, and they’d find still find a way to make him look bad.  Given that anyone with an R after their name knows (or ought to) that the press are most emphatically NOT their friend, I’m sort of surprised that we don’t see this sort of thing more often.

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  • NickLevi86

    You know darn well why this is.  As soon as they get their questions answered, that answer will be immediately used to backstab him to his face(yeah, you read that right).  

    These are not journalists, they’re paparazzi.

  • http://profiles.google.com/rob5136 Rob Crawford

    I can’t figure out why the press shouldn’t be treated with contempt. They’ve more than earned it.

  • http://profiles.google.com/exxo03 richard mcenroe

     Part of the fun at the Searchlight Nevada Tea Party rally was watching the media up on their podium looking over the crowd to the stage.  They looked like the 2/24th on the second morning at Roarke’s Drift…

  • NickLevi86

    Also, you’ll note that despite Hillary’s open approach to the “press”, the electoral results for such a practice were… contrary.

  • Adobe_Walls

    Stabbing David Gregory in the eye with a pencil would go a long way toward solving this problem.

  • Saul

    You and Stacy highlight points that go to the heart of what’s wrong with this picture: a traveling press corps. Like Stacy says, they are bored with the issues speeches after Day One and therefore, like you say, are focused on creating a Story Of The Day each day. Packs of reporters who travel with candidates are worse than useless. They ignore the big issues and focus on the irrelevant. The paradigm is centered around access, which shackles and compromises the reporters and allows them to be manipulated by the campaign staff. The most relevant journalists stay home and write stories about whether the candidate’s promises are deliverable, and how those policies would affect people if enacted. 

    Stacy misinterprets another feature of campaign press management, however:

    In fact, McCain campaign staffers at times tried to cordon off reporters in a pen, so as to prevent them even from interviewing people attending campaign rallies. 

    Having attended numerous presidential candidate appearances, it seems pretty clear to me that penning up the press is not meant to prevent them from interviewing attendees. Those interviews always happen for those reporters who want them. A room full of engaged voters is the proverbial barrel of fish. 

    What the press pen is actually meant to do is free the candidate from the infamous Iron Ring — the circle of cameramen and boom mike holders that often seals the candidate off from the public. I’ve seen campaign staff beg in vain for the traveling press to let voters approach the candidate. I’ve seen camera crews ruthlessly trample people by blindly pushing backwards through a crowd while taping a moving candidate from the front  — doing physical injury to people in order to capture utterly meaningless images of handshaking.

    The jobs of TV crew members depend on delivering   footage for another execrable broadcast every day. As a result, the members of TV news crews are desperately rude, grasping, and selfish. 

  • Wombat_socho

     Why stop with David Gregory?

  • Tennwriter

    Sarah Palin, IMHO, should have started with the Glenn and Helen Show, moved on to an interview with Michelle Malkin (with both of them in capri pants walking barefoot on the beach), and then some leader in the hunting crew, Stacy for a hard hitting interview in text, and finally Bill O’ Reilly, and then George Will, and then back to Rush, and on to Hannity, and ….

    Exclude your enemies from access.

    Your theory seems to assume that the liberal press is going to reform its behavior.

  • Tennwriter

    Some people hold to the theory that with a sufficiently bloody and obvious example, the wicked can be reformed through fear.  Others think that this is naivete and we should pencil them out of our lunch schedules now.

    This is a bit of a joke, btw.

  • PGlenn

    Great post, RSM.

    I’m a bit more skeptical, though, about the power of economic incentives when people are acting/thinking within contexts that are especially “political,” rather than especially “economic” (knowing that these two spheres are often inseparable). In general, political actors are motivated more by ideology than economic incentives. For example, voters tend to be quite sociotrophic. What about reporters? 

    You wrote, “. . . human beings respond to incentives . . .  The press has a job: To cover the campaign.” Yet, you also acknowledge that, “. . . some reporters (wrongly and unfairly) view their job as making sure the Republican doesn’t get elected.”

    For reporters, their economic incentives and their political ideologies are even more intertwined than they are for voters. And, indeed, the economic incentives are probably more at the forefront for them.

    So, it’s a closer struggle, but ideology still triumphs! 

  • Stephen walker

    Robert,

    Sorry to be the one to have to inform you of this, but you are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome vis a via the Media. They are no longer the worthwhile and respectable Fourth Estate, but have become nothing less than The Fifth Column Treasonous Media.

  • Finrod Felagund

    If Romney healed the lame and the blind, the headline the next day would be “Romney takes jobs away from hospitals and doctors”.
     

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/EU5DQWQTTHTPO4A4ZYSL3AAV2U Adjoran

     Well, he was Press Sec in 1972, the campaign went fairly well.

  • http://2012.ak4mc.us/ McGehee

     Why stop at one eye?

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/EU5DQWQTTHTPO4A4ZYSL3AAV2U Adjoran

    Jonathan Martin SHOULD shove it.

    The NYT and WaPo aren’t going to give Romney an even break no matter what.

    “Professionalism” – puh-leeze!  These hack propagandists have no ethics at all.  Politico is a wing of the Obama campaign. 

    If that lying little freak Martin made it onto my plane, he’d be thrown off – in mid-flight.

    The influence of the media has never been lower, and it continues to circle the drain with their circulations, ratings, revenues, and profits.  Some of it is due to changes in the way information is processed and available, but much of the problem is the media itself.

    And they show no sign of remorse, no sign of changing.  Any hand reached out to these animals will be bitten off.

  • http://evilbloggerlady.blogspot.com/ Evilbloggerlady

     
     
    Here is a picture of the press corps.  I agree with you premise that a candidate has to face the press, but they seem to have a definite preference to Republican/Conservative candidate flesh over that of Democrats.  

  • http://evilbloggerlady.blogspot.com/ Evilbloggerlady
  • http://2012.ak4mc.us/ McGehee

    The campaign has a job: To get the candidate elected.

    Undeniably.

    The press has a job: To cover the campaign.

    That may be their job job, but altogether too many in the press see their job as getting one (guess which one) of the candidates elected.

    Now, I can see the point about using media bias as an excuse for failure — after all, Reagan didn’t have all that friendly a media ecosystem even in his day and he did just fine — but the “good ones” in the press need to identify a little less with the 99% who give the other 1% a bad name, and try growing a skin of the thickness Reagan had to have.
     

  • Adobe_Walls

    Indeed.

  • Adobe_Walls

    Cause then he’d get a pass for being blind.

  • PGlenn

    But didn’t we warn you about this during the primaries? Back then, the media went relatively easy on Romney as it focused much of its hackeries on the “wing nut” candidates.

    At the time, you said that the other candidates’ failures to respond effectively to the unethical propagandists was because they weren’t ready for prime time and thus had no one to blame but themselves.

    Perhaps you’re still counting on Romney to make mince meat of the hacks – and I hope you’re right.

  • PGlenn

    Also, now that I think about it, the media hacks are probably receiving multiple types of “economic incentives” from different directions.

    For example, as RSM regularly mentions, Tina Brown’s publications lose $millions almost as a badge of honor. To work for that type of organization is not to heed market signals, but to support the larger (heavily subsidized) agenda. At a certain point, the market prevails, but some people are willing to lose a boatload of money – and otherwise distort the normal market “incentives” – for years before that day comes.

    Distorted incentives + ideology > “free market” economic incentives.  

  • Bob Hartley

    “Reporters are human beings”  Perhaps, but NBC, CBS, NPR, PBS, ABC, WaPo, NYT, et al., are not reporters, they are advocates.  Otherwise known as propagandists.  

    Treat them like wild animals for all I care, because that’s far better than I treat them when I run over them in daily life.

  • http://2012.ak4mc.us/ McGehee

    He doesn’t already?

  • http://profiles.google.com/rob5136 Rob Crawford


     The entire press corps — including, inter alia, Byron York and Carl Cameron, to say nothing of myself – is to be condemned pre-emptively and categorically as sub-human monsters?”

    Yep.

    Next question?

  • http://twitter.com/RangerSG Shawn Gillogly

     This. Absolutely. It’s time the GOP, and any serious conservative, stood up to the press corps and said, “You have a choice: You can make a serious attempt at Objective Journalism, or you can have your pass revoked, none of your questions will be answered, and you will be treated with no more respect than the National Enquirer.

    Your choice.

  • http://thecampofthesaints.org Bob Belvedere

    The Mafia would stop at one eye because the main purpose is to send a message and make the victim fear you enough that he will be putty in your hands [and because you let him live].

  • http://thecampofthesaints.org Bob Belvedere

    Context, Adobe…to make this act most effective one needs to (1) do it in a one-on-one interview and (2) do it on television so it can go viral.

    One act on one person – one message sent to millions.

  • Danby

    Sorry Stace., but in this instance the press are not the carnivores, being treated like wild animals. They are they meat. Romney has to have some way to appeal to Conservatives, and one of the easiest way to align yourself with the right is to show as much disdain for the press as the press shows for average Americans. Which is to say, dismiss them, treat them as unimportant hacks, and make sure it shows up on TV.

  • Quartermaster

    Stacy, I understand where you are coming from. A Journalist would agree with you. The people the press aide told to shove it aren’t Journalists, they are partisan hacks who “want to make a difference.” They have made a difference, but they did do it by doing their jobs. They did it as aides to Goebbels.

  • Quartermaster

    Rob, you are being silly. At best. No one has called Byron York, or his type sub-human and you are being dishonest to say that.

  • Wombat_socho

     At this point I’d be willing to give the Enquirer’s reporters more slack than those of the lamestream media.

  • RichFader

    Most of the press views conservatives and Republicans as  Jerry Sandusky viewed his campers, as a noisy and not always consensual harem. And has done so since Sandusky was playing Pop Warner ball. Given that context, being nervous about being too open to them might be counterproductive, but it’s not necessarily irrational.

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  • Saul

    Stabbing David Gregory in the eye with a pencil would go a long way toward solving this problem.

    At first glance I thought this was a quote from the packet James Holmes sent his psychiatrist. 

  • http://bobagard.blogspot.com/ Bob Agard

    Thanks for honestly giving us your experience. I linked to you here:  http://bobagard.blogspot.com/2012/07/romneys-press-secretary-tells-american.html

  • Adobe_Walls

    I’m sorry I’m not seeing the similarity.

  • http://thecampofthesaints.org Bob Belvedere

    Why do you hate the paparazzi???

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